How the Brain Works in Response to a Traumatic Event by Alison Woodward 

Our brains are designed to keep us alive; it is their primary responsibility. Every second of every day your brain is gathering and assessing information from inside and outside your body and making decisions about whether you are safe and well or whether you are at risk from harm. Messages are constantly being sent to keep your body working, you don’t have to think about it your brain just does it automatically.

If you are in a familiar environment, somewhere you know and feel safe, your brain can relax a little, only doing the unconscious jobs you need it to do like keep your heart pumping, lungs breathing and you can get on with the more complicated things you like to do like reading, cooking, cleaning, communicating and sleeping – whatever takes your fancy.

If you are not in a familiar environment however your brain gets active, it unconsciously scans the room for risk and you might not feel able to relax. If you think of when you have done something for the first time you might have felt nervous when arriving somewhere new, somewhere uncertain. This is the chemical reaction occurring unconsciously in the brain when we recognise we do not feel safe; we get butterflies in our tummies, we might feel sick, our heart beats faster and our breathing rate increases. Our brain is telling our body to get ready to react and to react fast should we need to.

We all experience this reaction; it is often referred to as our Fight/Flight response and is our body’s natural reaction to the threat of trauma. Trauma can be defined as anything we experience that makes us feel unsafe or is distressing for us. What many people do not know is that there are more than just two ways that our brains can choose to respond. There are in fact FIVE different trauma responses: Fight/Flight/Freeze/Flop and Friend.

To explain these responses further let’s go back to that clever assessment process our brain does unconsciously without us even noticing. It asks a primary question to itself ‘Am I safe?’. If the answer is ‘Yes’ then we carry on as normal, we might get a little spike of adrenalin but this then settles and we carry on as normal. For example maybe someone surprised you when you weren’t expecting it, maybe you had to quickly apply your brakes on your car, your body reacts, you can feel the adrenalin within your body and then when your brain is able to process that you are safe you feel calm again.

The part of our brain that is doing this is called the AMYGDALA, it is tiny gland which acts like a smoke detector for danger. The Amygdala forms part of our LIMBIC SYSTEM (a group of different parts of our brain that together control our emotional responses to events).

The Amygdala is constantly scanning our environment and is assessing whether we are safe against memories of what we have experienced before. If it senses that we may not be safe it gets activated and triggers the appropriate 5 F’s response also known as the TRAUMA CASCADE RESPONSE.

It is important to think of this reaction as part of the limbic system as the limbic system on its own does not have cognitive or logical thought attached to it. Under normal circumstances we react based on stimuli, or sensory information, and the initial reaction happens 1/1000th of a second before a message gets sent to our PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX (or thinking brain) where we can consciously make sense of what is happening and whether we are safe.

This is a really helpful mechanism as it means we learn do things without thinking. We do something once, assess it and give ourselves feedback as to whether it worked, modify our reaction and do it again. However when we feel threatened the link breaks between the limbic system and thepre-frontal cortex, the brain’s aim is to keep us alive so it stops all activity that is not necessary (i.e. wasting time to think!) and goes on what it has done before to survive. In short we lose the ability to assess the situation and make rational decisions i.e. ‘If I do this then I will be okay’ and our brain goes to ‘Last time there was danger we survived, so do that again …. NOW’

This is where the 5 different trauma responses come in. There is a cascade system that our brains use to decide what is the best way to survive something, it is primitive and is the same system in all mammals. We can look to the animal world to see some of the behaviour more prominently, as humans we forget that in times of stress and trauma we revert to evolutionary behaviour. We can look to the animal world to see these reactions more clearly for example ‘a rabbit in headlights’ is in a ‘Freeze’ response and ‘playing dead’ (like many animals do) is the ‘Flop’ response.

When we feel threatened our brains go through a process in a split second that looks like this:

 

When someone experiences sexual violence the perceived threat to their life in the moment of assault is extreme, their survival response will be triggered. For example; someone may find themselves in a sexual situation that is unwanted. They will initially unconsciously assess whether they can ‘Fight’ their way out of the situation. If they feel their attacker will back down or they are stronger this may resolve the situation and they will, although impacted, be safe. If they cannot ‘Fight’ they will assess whether they can flee, can they get to safety? If they can they will flee the situation also known as ‘Flight’, if they cannot they will ‘Freeze’. In this response everything freezes, time, thinking and all connection between the Limbic system and Cortex. They cannot respond and they may not be able to remember details of the attack.

If the situation is not resolved by the ‘Freeze’ response i.e. the attacker does not stop, they may play dead or ‘Flop’. This is the brains unconscious way of preventing further injury. During this type of response people often feel disconnected from their bodies and report that they have no memory of what happened. This is often referred to as dissociation.

After a traumatic event it can take a long time to feel safe again and the brain will continue to be on high alert scanning for potential danger after the event. It can also be difficult to understand why we or someone reacted in a certain way for example ‘Freezing’ when being attacked but hopefully by reading this article you have gained an understanding on why these responses happen both in ourselves and others. Hopefully it also means we are more tolerant and supportive of responses to trauma.

 

Definitions:

FIGHT: I am bigger, stronger and can win against the person. I will stand my ground and win.

FLIGHT: I am smaller and will not win, I can get away though so I’m going to run

FREEZE: I can’t get away and I can’t win, I’ll freeze because if I don’t respond they may lose interest and go away

FLOP: They aren’t going away, if I stay frozen it’s going to hurt more so I’ll flop and play dead, then it will be over and they’ll go away

FRIEND: I can’t stop it, maybe if I keep them on my side and keep them happy they won’t hurt me as much

Alison Woodward is the Clinical Supervisor at Sexual Trauma and Recovery Services (STARS Dorset), MSc (Psych), CTA, Dip Therapeutic Counselling, Dip Clinical Supervision UKCP accredited Psychotherapist